Is the end of the Islamic Republic in sight?

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In 1978, as I boarded a plane leaving Tehran for San Francisco, it did not occur to me that I might never see my birth country again. As a teenager that year, I felt unease, despite no real indication of an impending revolution that would occur months later. The trip was merely to visit my sister, but it began a long separation from Iran.

Now, 46 years later, I have witnessed from afar the persistent turmoil in a country that has endured nearly 3,000 years of foreign invasions, revolutions, domestic chaos and a devastating famine that killed close to 20 percent of its population. Every hopeful spark for this ancient nation has been quickly extinguished by internal and external forces — until now.

The roots of this tumultuous path can be traced back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. This movement, predating the Arab Spring by over a century, was the Middle East’s first grassroots initiative against government corruption and foreign domination. It led to the establishment of a parliament (Majlis) that curtailed the monarchy’s power. But Mohammad Ali Shah, supported by British and Russian forces, dissolved the Majlis by 1908, and the idealistic visions of the revolution’s founders were never fully realized.

Over 40 years later, Iran had another glimpse of hope. In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and implemented social reforms. Yet his efforts were thwarted by a CIA-backed coup in 1953, reinstating Shah Reza Pahlavi’s authoritarian regime. The Shah attempted his version of reforms in the 1960s, and although there were some successes, Iranians did not support the rapid Westernization of the country. Moreover, the regime’s harsh repression of the population overshadowed and eventually suffocated another possible spark of freedom.

By 1978, the whispers of discontent grew louder, leading to more unrest and more killings of protesters by the security forces. The 1979 revolution ended over 2,500 years of monarchy and established the Islamic Republic. The revolutionary leaders promised, as others have done in the past, a new era of hope and freedom. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini asserted, “You ladies here have proved that you are at the forefront of this movement. You have a great share in our Islamic movement.” He did not keep his promise.

It is hard to fathom now the sense of jubilation the Iranians felt then. It was a revolution supported by a supermajority of the population, from religious to secular, from illiterate to highly Western-educated intelligentsia, and from conservatives to progressives. However, the euphoria evaporated quickly as the Islamic Republic built a constitution based on the concept of Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) and Marja-e-Taglid (Source to Follow), pillars of Shi’a Islam that are inherently illiberal.

Even Iran’s first free election, which gave the presidency to Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, was quickly overshadowed by the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War and mass incarcerations and executions that eroded any potential for democratic progress. Nevertheless, most of the population supported and respected Ayatollah Khomeini as the Marja. That belief, unfortunately, has been a pillar that sustained the Islamic Republic.

However, in his hubris, Khomeini inadvertently corrupted the system he had established. In 1989, he dismissed Hossein Ali Montazeri, a highly qualified Grand Ayatollah and another Marja, and appointed Ali Khamenei (neither a Marja nor an ayatollah) as Iran’s new supreme leader. This necessitated a constitutional amendment by the Assembly of Experts to legitimize Khamenei’s position. Despite opposition from many religious scholars, Khomeini’s decisions were reluctantly accepted by a populace weary from the protracted Iran-Iraq war.

Decades after his installation, Khamenei planned to continue this trend, but his design was disrupted by President Ebrahim Raisi’s untimely death in a helicopter accident. Khamenei had hoped to appoint Raisi, another similarly unqualified individual known as the “Butcher of Tehran,” as his successor. This choice would likely have faced significant opposition from the population.

Now, with Raisi’s death perceived as suspicious, the regime appears more weakened than is generally reported by domestic and foreign media. The cause of Raisi’s death — whether a genuine accident, an act by foreign intelligence, an internal power struggle or even divine intervention — has led to widespread speculation and conspiracy theories, each underscoring different regime vulnerabilities. Whether it suggests a national defense breach, internal security failure, systemic incompetence or divine disfavor, each theory erodes trust in the regime’s stability and capability.

Since establishing the Islamic Republic, Iran has experienced fleeting moments that hinted at potential democratic progress. The election of comparatively progressive presidents, such as Bani-Sadr or Mohammad Khatami, and the popular Green Movement briefly opened doors to freedom. However, these opportunities were swiftly derailed by the election of reactionary figures and the harsh suppression of protesters.

In contrast, the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement has not only persisted but has continued to grow. The fact that all six appointed presidential candidates, to varying degrees, criticized the status quo suggests a potential shift in Iran’s political landscape.

As we observe the unfolding events — including the election of yet another moderate — it becomes clear that the Islamic Republic is grappling with its inherent contradictions and mounting pressures. The mysterious death of Raisi and the result of the current election are just the latest crises revealing deep vulnerabilities within the regime. This pattern of instability, heightened by the regime’s struggle to maintain control amidst economic woes and social unrest, suggests a profound erosion of public trust and governance.

Internal dissent and external scrutiny could be pivotal. The Islamic Republic’s reliance on a rigid clerical hierarchy is increasingly seen as unsustainable. As the government scrambles to uphold its legitimacy and manage succession of the Supreme Leader, the question becomes not if but when the regime will confront a critical reckoning. This inevitability points to a nearing end for the current form of governance, potentially leading to dramatic changes in Iran’s political landscape.

Mahyar Amouzegar is the president of New Mexico Tech and a writer. He formerly was a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation, researching national security policy issues. His latest novel is “The Hubris of an Empty Hand.”

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